A First Look at the Rites of Spring Battle of the Bands

The Rites of Spring Battle of the Bands provides a great opportunity for local bands to play on a big stage--and for you to discover their music!
The Rites of Spring Battle of the Bands provides a great opportunity for local bands to play on a big stage–and for you to discover their music!

It’s that time of year again at Vanderbilt.  The Student Alumni Board is passing out free shirts at Rand; there are dozens of garbage bins lounging pell-mell on Alumni Lawn; the fraternities are gearing up for their crawfish boils and pig roasts; fierce debate regarding 2 Chainz’ arraignment echoes across campus.  What else could it be but Rites Week?

Love it or hate it (and, as always, there’s been a lot of both emotions in reaction to this year’s lineup), the week of Rites of Spring is the best time for music at Vanderbilt every year.  Though the main event will be an epic spectacle that should trump last year’s in terms of debauchery and Dionysian life force–after all, NEEDTOBREATHE probably played before the most sober Rites crowd ever–my favorite part of the week is the Battle of the Bands, which will take place this Thursday at 7:30 PM in Rand Lounge/Dank New Rand.  The Battle of the Bands is easy to overlook, especially with the winners’ prize being the chance to play on Friday afternoon before most students will want to arrive, but it’s a great showcase of some local talent (including a number of Vanderbilt-based acts) and winning would be a tremendous affirmation for any of the competitors.  And this year, you as an audience member have an opportunity to play a pivotal role in determining the battle’s victor, as the crowd’s vote will account for two-fifths of the final decision (alongside the three judges).  The idea seems to be that the winner should be able to draw a crowd to Rites as early as possible, with the ability to do this on a Thursday night supposedly predictive of the ability to follow suit the next afternoon.  So if you are friends with one or more of the contestants, the most important thing you can do for them is to show up at the battle on Thursday night and bring a pack of friends along for the ride.

Even if you aren’t acquainted with any of the acts, the Battle of the Bands will be well worth the time spent.  As a longtime supporter of the Vanderbilt music scene, I am very pleased to see that six out of the eight competitors are led by at least one Vanderbilt student; it bothered me last year when only two out of the eight acts were student-based and neither came close to winning.  These six acts may benefit from a sort of home crowd advantage, given the weight of the audience vote.  That said, don’t count out either of the two non-Vanderbilt bands–each has achieved critical praise for its music.  Most importantly, though, there will be something for everyone at the show.  Ted Moock, who along with Augie Phillips was in charge of selecting the eight finalists from twenty-three total applicants, told me he “wanted to make sure there was a diverse pool of acts”at this year’s Battle after previous iterations produced contestants with very similar sounds.  In my opinion, he and Phillips succeeded; among the genres represented by the participants are hip-hop, soul-country, and every type of commercially viable rock.

Overall, the lineup for the Battle looks to be stellar.  “We’re really excited,” said Moock, who will be emceeing the show (Phillips will be one of the judges).  And after reading the following descriptions of each act (conveniently accompanied by the time it goes onstage), hopefully you too will be stoked for the Battle of the Bands.

Extras in the War (7:35 pm)

This band is something of a mystery.  Put together by Jared Rubens as part of the RVU Records/VTV collaboration Battle Bands (a fitting title), Extras in the War gained a second wind when Jon O’Hara joined the existing lineup to assist on the songwriting front.  “Something About You,” the song the band turned in with its application to play at the Battle, is amazing, and each of the individual musicians of whom the band is comprised is incredibly talented–O’Hara described guitarist Richard Droghini as “the best jazz guitarist [he’s] ever played with,” and Kristyn Fratus provides very solid and soulful lead vocals.  The biggest issues for Extras in the War are going to be their chemistry when they play live–the Battle will be the band’s first public performance–and a relative lack of public awareness that the band even exists, which could inhibit its ability to draw a crowd.  But with a great performance, Extras in the War could surprise a lot of people.  Check out their instrumental demo below.

Scott Revey (7:50 pm)

Revey is a Vanderbilt graduate student in the Masters of Public Health program, though he originally hails from Alameda, California.  It’s hard to describe his style, but I’d call it sunny pop-rock with a little bit of punk grit to it.  Added into this mix is Revey’s incredibly distinctive voice: a high tenor with more vibrato than you’d expect, almost as if Bruno Mars went into Broadway (an apt comparison, considering Revey also bears some physical resemblance to Mars).  The punkiness comes out much more in his live act than on his EP, Roads to Rio, which has a sparkling quality to it, particularly on the absolutely shining title track.  The vocal harmonies are beautiful, the whistled hook cuts through the air, and the guitar work brings to mind a bright summer’s day on Ipanema Beach.  As good as the EP is, however, it doesn’t hold a candle to hearing Revey play live.  He brings tremendous energy to the stage and solos like a madman on his guitar, working the crowd into his catchy hooks and engaging them between songs.  A major x-factor for Revey is Greg Cobb, a talented saxophonist who doesn’t appear on the EP but adds a massive spark to the live performances (think of the significance of Clarence Clemons to Bruce Springsteen).  The rest of his band is incredibly crisp and each member plays his role perfectly.  The issue for Revey, as it will be for other bands without undergraduate members, will be getting enough supporters to the show to place well in the audience vote; his music and professionalism speak for themselves.

Matty Carter and Ariel (8:05 pm)

This act is the most intriguing entry in the Battle, and as a hip-hop duo, Matty Carter and Ariel sound very different from any of the other bands involved.  But with 2 Chainz headlining Rites and several other hip-hop acts in the lineup, there were more hip-hop applicants to the Battle of the Bands than in past years, according to Moock.  Matty Carter and Ariel were apparently the best of these; they are growing in the Brooklyn underground hip-hop scene and have signed with Sony/ATV Music Publishing.  Their sound brings a measure of rock influence to the hip-hop–Ariel provides live drums while Matty Carter emcees–and as a result their remixes include such tunes as Lorde’s “Royals” and Foreigner’s “Cold as Ice.”  When they aren’t making remixes, the originals they produce sound like the Beastie Boys living in a post-Kanye world (though comparing them to such a legendary act isn’t fair to either party).  Matty Carter’s lyrics are fairly explicit and portray a great deal of confidence, but his flow is inconsistent–at times his rhymes and his emotion feel forced, but there are some good lines scattered throughout the MC&A catalog.  Meanwhile, Ariel’s drumming provides a punk rock attitude in the background.  I’m not a hip-hop expert, so I’m reluctant to pass too much judgment on MC&A, but I’m not sure their sound is special enough to win over the judges, whose support they’ll need in order to win because of the home crowd advantage I’m anticipating for Vanderbilt acts.  Their live show, from YouTube examples, looks decent but not mind-blowing enough to sway the crowd, particularly in a venue like Rand Lounge that doesn’t support laser light shows or hammered patrons.  At the very least, MC&A should be able to get their name out to some members of the crowd and potentially win some fans, but I’d call them a long shot to win.

Brave Town (8:20 pm)

Brave Town is a local band who recently changed its name from Wild Sun due to potential legal issues with that name–certainly not something an up-and-coming band wants to have to do.  Luckily, their music holds up regardless of the name of their band.  Their music features heavy reverb in accord with modern rock fashion, and on top of that the distorted yet somehow soothing vocals of Jay Ragsdale leap up and down the musical staff, showcasing his impressive range.  Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Brave Town is the interplay between the two guitars and the incorporation of intricate rhythmic patterns seamlessly into the music.  The songs on their EP, Favor, don’t contain many particularly catchy hooks, but the musical landscape the band creates is beautifully surreal even as the rock solid rhythm section ties the songs down to reality, and the title track merits multiple listens.  I would compare their sound to that of The Temper Trap, certainly not poor company in which to be found.  As with any non-Vanderbilt band, though, the crowd’s vote may be tough for Brave Town to win, no matter the quality of their performance.  I’m eager to see how they recreate the reverb effects that give the music on the Favor EP its atmospheric quality, and it will be interesting to hear Ragsdale’s voice without the significant production it appears to have received in the tracks on the EP.  Another curiosity is that the EP includes a dance/techno remix of “Favor,” which could mesh well with the rest of the Rites lineup if it can be reproduced live.  Like MC&A, Brave Town’s greatest benefit from participation in the Battle will likely be increased exposure on Vanderbilt’s campus, even if they don’t win.

Vista Vista (8:35 pm)

Vista Vista is the first of five straight acts to be comprised of mainly, if not entirely, Vanderbilt undergraduates.  The inclusion of Melodores Matthew Thompson and Justin Kenney lends credence to the band, particularly with Thompson on lead vocals.  His voice has the ideal combination of rasp and striking beauty one looks for in the lead singer of a rock band, and his stage presence is well-developed from his time in Vanderbilt’s most notable a capella group.  The music itself has a delightful mix of hard rock swagger and synth-pop cheerfulness, and with Thompson’s oft-brooding vocals layered on top of this, Vista Vista ends up with some legitimately catchy sections of their songs, particularly in the choruses and in the guitar riffs they’ve crafted.  The most interesting thing about Vista Vista, to me, is that the demos accessible on their MySpace page are of very low quality; I’d love to hear their music live, which we will have the chance to do at the Battle.  The other issue one notices in the demo recordings is an imperfect chemistry between the instruments, particularly on “Another Way Home,” which will need to be fixed if Vista Vista is to succeed.  Despite the flaws in the recordings, though, the quality and talent are there.  This is one band that could surprise a lot of people–while their campus presence as a group isn’t noteworthy, their individual members have the power to draw and entertain a crowd, and the music’s quality shines through even in a poorly recorded demo.

Another Way Home DEMO from Vista Vista on Myspace.

Julia Cole (8:50 pm)

Julia Cole is a sophomore at Vanderbilt who hails from Houston, where she got her first big break when she was asked to sing the national anthem at a Texans game.  Her greatest strength is the amazing, soulful voice that won her that opportunity–imagine the sultriness of Adele but with a much warmer tone, as befits a girl from Texas.  She pairs this set of pipes with a solid set of piano chops and an expanding skill repertoire on guitar.  Cole’s been grinding out songs since she got to campus in 2012, and in that time span she’s begun to develop a sound that matches her voice.  Recently, she laid down two tracks in the RVU Records studio; one, “Blow My Mind,” has a clean, country-pop feel, while the other, “Bad Influence,” features a prominent horn section which gives it a Buble-esque sheen, though it is more upbeat than most of his works.  These tracks serve as a showcase of the wide variety of music that Cole has written this year, fusing a little bit of country with a growing influence from R&B and soul.  Her performance at the Battle of the Bands is likely to include some elements of both styles, and as a frontwoman, she will do well in setting an enthusiastic tone for the audience.  Her backing band will be strong musicians, but I’m uncertain of the chemistry between them and Cole.  It’s always a bit tricky when a singer/songwriter doesn’t have a permanent slate of backing musicians–the band will always know the songs, but the frontwoman can’t rely on consistently gelling with the group.  It puts more pressure on Cole to keep the audience rapt, but having seen her play, I think she’ll be up to the task.  There’s also the fact that aside from her musical talent, Cole is the most active marketer of any musician I’ve ever met.  She will assuredly pack the house with her friends and fans, and it will be difficult for the other acts to top her in the audience vote.

Color Me Circle (9:05 pm)

Color Me Circle is the newest project of Keith Berquist, a graduating senior who has been very active in the cultivation of a songwriting scene at Vanderbilt through organizations like the Songwriters’ Club, Studio CRB, and Live VU.  The songs he writes have a feel that verges somewhere between punk and folk (isn’t the first really just an outgrowth of the second, though?), especially when played on his minimalist setup–a plastic-body guitar and a tiny amplifier with a distinctive tremolo effect.  His voice is perfectly suited to this style; the ideal amount of gravel and shout mixed in with the ability to express gentler emotions.  And when it comes to live performance, Berquist becomes a wild man on stage, headbanging with the best of the rock gods of the past and dancing around when he isn’t at the microphone.  A notable exception to this behavior occurs on performances of “Clarity,” a highlight of Berquist’s catalog that he plays acoustically at live shows.  With the presence of Harrison Kenum on bass and Daniel Closser on drums, Color Me Circle adds a tight rhythm section to Berquist’s guitar and vocals, allowing him to perform raging blues-inspired solos with confidence that the beat will not be lost despite the band’s three-piece nature.  In terms of drawing a crowd, Color Me Circle could not have asked for better timing; the band released its debut EP Aside yesterday and held a well-attended concert in celebration of the EP’s release on Monday night.  With a fully engaged fanbase, can Color Me Circle keep up the momentum and pack Rand Lounge with its supporters tomorrow evening?  The band has the energy to light up the Friday afternoon Rites stage but will need to stand out at the Battle to get that opportunity.  The other question is how the audience and the judges will respond to a punk-folk band, no matter the quality of the songs.  Last year’s Rites lineup would have been a perfect fit for this style, but with a greater emphasis on hip-hop this year the mindset of the crowd and the judges will be interesting to note.  Check out “Clarity” by clicking on the link below.


Kid Freud (9:20 pm)

Kid Freud continues the trend of Vanderbilt undergraduate bands but throws a wrench into the pattern: its singer and guitarist, Alex Tomkins, is not a student and, in fact, hails from England.  Tomkins’ accent and electric personality as the frontman of a three-piece outfit give Kid Freud an automatic advantage in the crowd-winning game–everyone knows that a cool accent is the key to an American girl’s heart.  The band, though, is far more than just Tomkins’ ownership of the stage.  Their music is catchy while rocking hard, and all three songs that can be found on their Soundcloud are borderline infectious, worth multiple listens each; in terms of the riffs they play and the style of Tomkins’ vocals, think a combination of The Strokes and Vampire Weekend.  There’s swagger in the driving beat of the verses, backed by Jacob Moore on bass and Daniel Closser (again) on drums; there’s anger in Tomkins’ brutally strummed guitar solos; there’s gentleness in the vocal melodies.  The band has been playing out heavily over the past month and it showed when they opened for Color Me Circle on Monday night–they were tight and crisp, with the bass and drums in lock step and the three members looking like they were having the time of their lives.  If Kid Freud can engage an audience that starts out neutral to their presence the way they did at that show, when nearly all of the patrons were primarily there to see Color Me Circle, they will have a very solid chance of winning the Battle, assuming that they attract a crowd of their own to see the show.  Their songwriting is good enough to win over the judges, as is the energy they bring to their live set.

That wraps up this preview of the Rites of Spring Battle of the Bands.  Regardless of the two bands that come out on top, it’s sure to be a fantastic night of music in Rand Lounge and a great way to get into the proper mindset for the main event this weekend.  Come out and support your favorite act–they will need it!